We’re going to prison. I expect it to look awful, but when we turn the corner and the brick building comes into view, a little furry thing with scrabbling claws starts doing laps inside my stomach. Maybe the breakfast burrito I scarfed down a few hours ago was not a good choice.
Brenda, the social worker assigned to my case, has been talking to me all morning about good choices in life. She drives and steals glances at me. I think she’s checking to see if I’m listening. I’m not.
We turn in a long driveway. My God. The fence is about a hundred feet tall with rolls of razor wire coiled all through and over it. It looks like it could keep an army of stampeding elephants in there. On second thought, considering who’s inside, that’s not a bad thing.
Brenda pulls in the parking lot not far from a squat building in front with the name Maryland Correctional Facility for Women on a big sign over the doorway like it’s some kind of college or something. She undoes her seatbelt and reaches into the backseat. I get out. I’m tired of smelling the strawberry air freshener fighting with the lingering scent of menthol cigarettes. Rather smell the cigs.
It’s warm for late October. The sun is just coming over the guard tower, but for some reason my hands are really cold. Brenda calls out something like “Wait for me,” from the other side of the car. Sure, like I’d go in there alone.
“Regina.” She walks around to my side of the car, breathless from digging that huge tote bag out from the backseat. “I want you to know that you do not have to go in. If you decide not to see her, I can meet with her alone.” She squeezes my arm above the elbow and smiles. I hate that.
“Nah, I’m okay,” I tell her and smile back. She’s only doing her social worker job. Give her a break, I figure. I step toward the entrance.
Inside, a blast of refrigerated air hits my face. A guard right by the door stops us. The black butt end of a pistol is sticking out of its holster. I’ve never seen a gun, a real one, up close before. Brenda fishes around in that Mary Poppins bag of hers and pulls out her ID and some letter. The guard waves her over to the metal detectors.
“Put your items on the belt,” he says in a way that tells me he’s repeated that line a million times this week already. “All items on the belt, empty your pockets of any change and loose items, and step through, please.”
I pull my phone out of a back pocket and drop it in the plastic tray. Brenda’s purse vomits its contents all over the bottom of its bin. On the other side of the metal detector, a lady in the same guard uniform waves us over to the desk. Her face sags like a bulldog. No one here smiles, that’s for sure.
We get visitor badges. Good, because I sure wouldn’t want them mistaking me for someone who needs to stay here. Then another lady guard walks us to the back door. She holds it open for us to walk through first and announces, “This way to the visitation block,” like she’s giving a tour. I was really hoping something would be wrong—improper ID or not a visitors’ day after all—and they’d turn us back and I could go home. Instead, this lady is taking us to the big building. The real prison.
Where she is.
I look up at the sun like maybe I’ll never see it again.
We walk through another set of doors and inside. Man, there are a lot of doors in this place. The visitor area is pretty much like I imagined—cinderblocks painted in baby poo green and furniture that makes the stuff at school look chic and modern. More guards. The lady guard keys in some numbers, and a heavy door opens with just a click and a whoosh. No clanging bars or jangling locks. The door closes with a whisper behind us, and we’re led down a long corridor.
“In here.” She holds the door. “Have a seat. The matron will bring the prisoner.”
The prisoner. That’s what she’s called now. Funny, most of my life I felt like her prisoner.
The room has some inspirational posters with glowing sunrises and smiling family members holding hands in a meadow or some stupid crap. There’s a water cooler against the far wall behind two rows of chairs. I think they’re bolted to the ground. No one else is here. The weird thing is there is another room, much smaller, on the other side of a Plexiglas wall. Inside the little room there’s a table with a few chairs. A door in the back opens and she walks into the little room.
I haven’t seen her for more than a year now. Under the fluorescent lights she looks even more fake-tan orange than before. Maybe it’s the jumpsuit that’s just about the color of mud. There’s an inch of dark roots where her hair has grown out. Must not be able to get a hairdresser appointment in prison as often as she’s used to. She turns to a uniformed woman behind her, waves her hand like a queen, and the other woman sits in a chair in the far corner. I pull my eyes away to see our escort push some button and open a door to a portal that connects the waiting area with the fishbowl room. She leads us in and announces, “Your visitors are here.”
She turns her orangey face to me. Smiles. But only for a second before she pulls her lips down into a clowny frown. “Regina, your hair!”
My hand floats up to run fingers through my shorn-off curls, but I stop it in mid-air.
“I don’t like short hair on girls.” She has no problem expressing her opinion. “It makes you look like a thug or…”
She struggles to find more insults to hurl at me. Maybe prisoner, I think, but keep the thought to myself.
“Hi, Angela,” are the only words I allow past my lips. I know that will piss her off even more.
“Angela! What happened to Mom?”
She comes at me, arms spread wide, but the lady guard steps between us. “I’m sorry. No physical contact.”
“That’s absurd. She’s my daughter.” Angela tries to step around, but Lady Guard is a linebacker. “We haven’t seen each other for a year.”
Angela uses her imperious queen voice around here, too, but Lady Guard doesn’t back down. Instead, she pulls out a chair from the table. Even though I think she meant it for me, Angela takes the seat and pulls out the one beside her for me. I choose the one across the table. Brenda stands by the door.
“I’m so glad to see you, dear.” She places her hands on the table and leans in. Her nails are short, unpainted. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them that way. “I want to hear all about how my sister is treating you down at that dust bowl she calls a horse farm. I’ve always hated Texas.”
Angela takes a deep breath, ready to continue. No doubt she has no interest in hearing about how I’m doing, but that’s when Brenda steps over to us, clutching a folder to her chest.
“Who are you?” Angela asks.
“Nice to meet you, Ms. Hamilton. I’m Regina’s caseworker, Brenda Schwartz.” Brenda holds out a chubby hand.
Angela shakes with only the tips of her fingers, turns her chair away from Brenda, and crosses her arms and legs. “My daughter is not a case, Miss Schwartz.”
“Of course not!” Brenda blushes to the roots of her hair. Her face is already shiny. Brenda dumps the folder on the table and takes a seat next to me. I smell that fake strawberry smell from her car oozing off her clothes now. “I’ve been appointed by the State of Maryland to ease the transition, you know, answer any questions and go over the rules governing the resumption of custody.”
I don’t usually listen to Brenda much, but now I’ve heard a word that makes that furry rodent in my gut start scurrying around again. Did she say custody? “What’s going on?” My voice is loud in the little fishbowl. “You said we were visiting.”
“Now you’ve ruined my surprise, Miss Schwartz.” A little vein in Angela’s neck throbs. I know that sign. She turns to me. “Regina, I’ve got good news.”
The back of the chair is pressing on my spine as I lean as far away as possible. Angela’s eyes bore into mine until I drop them to the folder on the table between us. Brenda must have known about this.
“I’m getting out in ninety days. Isn’t that great? The State has come to its senses finally, it seems. And you’ll be back with me. You won’t have to live with Sophia in Texas anymore. Isn’t that wonderful?”
She keeps asking me if this or that is wonderful and all I want to do is throw this damn table through the Plexiglas window and escape. Why didn’t anyone tell me? Aunt Sophia flew up with me and never said anything. I thought we were visiting for the long weekend.
“Why?” My voice cracks.
“Why?” A small laugh bursts from Angela. “Because they realized they made a mistake. The sentencing was ridiculous for”—she flaps her hand in the air as if waving away a stink—“insurance fraud. Really.”
Angela assumed I was asking a different question, a question about her, of course. What she didn’t say about the insurance fraud was the fact that it involved killing several show horses. Brenda says nothing. She’s shuffling papers in that stupid folder.
“Five minutes,” Lady Guard says.
“Tell me, Miss Caseworker, have you arranged it so my daughter will be ready to come home with me when I’m released?” Angela slaps the table. “And Regina”—my eyes snap up to meet hers. “Call me Mom, not Angela. What kind of a way is that for a daughter to talk?” She looks around the room for agreement. The matron nods.
Brenda pushes papers at Angela with brightly colored sticky arrows printed with Sign here! all over them. Based on the legal talk, she knows her job all right. She probably imagines she’s helping to reunite a family or some other social worker crap.
We stand. Lady Guard goes to the door, and that’s when Angela takes two steps over and wraps her arms around me like a boa constrictor. She whispers, “And we will pick up where we left off. You understand?”
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